Looking Back: 8 Years of an Obama Administration

I have been recently reflecting on what these last eight years have meant, and in part on how I think they will written in the history books. Reflection is, after all, an important tool for me – I’ve written about that before. But with my 25 years in the intelligence field, and my current work teaching intelligence, security studies, and a lot of topics related to policy to undergraduate and graduate students, I have and continue to spend time thinking about decision and policy makers.

History is going to judge them. History is going to make judgement about these years.

I don’t have to like them. I just have to think about them.

  1. This was an era of unprecedented spying. George W. Bush took the US and the Intelligence Communities off the deep end with departs to signals intelligence and cyber work, all in the name of the Global War on Terror and under the auspices of the Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists and the USA PATRIOT Act, I am confident that history is going to record that the Obama administration took the US even even further down that rabbit hole. History, I am sure, is not going to look favorable on this – history, on the whole. Outside of the US, history will record that the US aggressively use its intelligence capabilities to pursue collection capabilities that trampled the rights of so many, from citizens up to and including foreign leaders of close allies like Brazil and Germany. I do not expect that Snowden will ever be viewed as a whistleblower, but I wonder if the whole of his cache of documents will one day be released – these documents are, if nothing else, slowly contributing to this narrative. This was an era in which is the US was known for efforts such as the NSA data center in Salt Lake Center, described as being built in support of efforts to collect “all forms of communication, including the complete contents of private emails, cell phone calls, and Internet searches, as well as all types of personal data trails—parking receipts, travel itineraries, bookstore purchases, and other digital ‘pocket litter’.” (link) That’s pretty extreme, and at times hard to reconcile with a country that wants to position itself under the marketing banner of “exporting democracy.”
  2. This administration turned drones up to 11. Absolutely, drone warfare began with President George W. Bush, with the first AGM-114 Hellfire missile coming off of an MQ-1’s rails in anger on 07 October 2001, launched from a CIA Predator, in an effort to kill senior Taliban leader and military commander, Mullah Omar. I get that. But in 2002 and all the way through 2008, those missiles were planned for and used as an extension of the airframe, in most every case. The drones flew ISR operations, and when there was a need for a strike, the decision to use them was made in accordance with the same targeting process used in the Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC), with the same release authorities and decision making process. That changed, immediately, with President Obama, who was the use of drones, and armed high altitude long endurance drones such as the MQ-9 Reaper, as a means to change operations, change targeting, change effects in the war on terror, and also reduce risks. Suddenly, the US was deploying just drone platforms as an integrated capability to support the Find / Fix / Finish / Exploit process. It has not gone well – the US has missed its target; proclaimed intended targets dead when they are not; and repeatedly been called out for causing other deaths, with the US even debating that. The US continues to use the same Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists, passed in September 2002, as the legal means and authorization for these attacks, at a time when the drone strikes – in places like Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere – arguably has little to do with the AUMF itself anymore.

    (a) IN GENERAL- That the President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.

    It didn’t help that, starting in 2009, the Administration also decided to add American citizens to the “kill list,” too. This included Anwar al-Awlaki, who was born in New Mexico and who has been an imam at a mosque in Falls Church, VA. He had been a senior leader in the newly formed Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, after having been imprisoned in Yemen and helping to form AQAP. The US was busy formulating its policies on using drones away from traditional battlefields like Iraq and Afghanistan, and in using them to target Americans and others. As the policy unfolded in 2010 – and after several attempts, Awlaki was killed in an MQ-9 Reaper strike in September 2011, two weeks before another strike killed his 16 year old son – the Administration based their decision to strike on three core principles:

an informed, high-level official of the U.S. government has determined that the targeted individual poses an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States;

capture is infeasible, and the United States continues to monitor whether capture becomes feasible; and

the operation would be conducted in a manner consistent with applicable law of war principles. This conclusion is reached with recognition of the extraordinary seriousness of a lethal operation by the United States against a U.S. citizen, and also of the extraordinary seriousness of the threat posed by senior operational al-Qa’ida members and the loss of life that would result were their operations successful. text

The US continues to struggle with the justification for these struggles, when in the case of Awlaki, he was killed while rider across the desert in a truck – that’s hardly an imminent threat of violent attack against the United States. Similarly, the US at that time, through the CIA’s paramilitary forces and the Special Operations Command, has been conducting direct action operations throughout the region in support of either capturing or killing specific senior leaders just like Awlaki, to include just only the raid into Pakistan to capture / kill Bin Laden in May 2011, but also Operation CELESTIAL BALANCE  in September 2009 in Kenya, to capture / kill Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan of al-Shabaab. While I understand that among all of the things the President has been trying to do include reducing risk – and I value that – it’s also important, under the Laws of Land Warfare, to adhere to the principles of military necessity, specifically in not overstating the danger posed by a target or threat.

3. I am confident that this Administration will also be remember as an era of the family.  I think a part of that has to do with their being a very visible family in the White House – something not always a part of the fiber of our most senior leadership. They laughed. They played. They danced. And yes, there was sadness, to include the January 2015 death of Beau Biden from cancer. The family theme carries over into a lot of other things that happened in these 8 years – from States passing legislation recognizing marriage for all, to Congress finally getting their heads out of their asses and recognizing their gays in the military are not, never have been, and never will be a threat to national security or the god order and discipline, and with that, repealing the insanely stupid, incredibly unneeded, and never asked for by the military, legislation associated with prohibiting all from openly and proudly serving their country.

4. Guantanamo Bay detention camp remains open. This is a failure of the Administration, in that President Obama had made it a goal of his to close it. Closing it would have taken support from and, most importantly, action by Congress. I have now spent what feels like 3 or maybe 4 lifetimes practicing and studying war and conflict – I can and am ready to talk to you as you eat an entire meal and mine grows cold. But continued conflict – actively fighting – has to include a plan for and steps to transition out of actively fighting and back to talking. War is, after all, is politics by other means. At some point, the fighting will stop, and you’ll return to… just politics. With that, there has to be a plan for GITMO. Has to. But I will add this, too – proudly holding detainees in an extrajudicial status, outside the laws of warfare and outside the statuses afforded under the Geneva Convention, isn’t really a cool thing. To stand before the world as a vanguard of freedom and liberty, while pulling stunts like this, does not help our cause. And I say this, while completely leaving out all 38 chapters of my discourse about what it does to the actual fight, and the whole of the Long War we are engaged in, as well as what it is doing to the Sunni/Shia fight that we seem to somehow want to join in as well. GITMO represented a bad mistake we made in 2002 and my god, we still can’t seem to get out of it. I do not have an issue with warfare, I do not have an issue with detentions. I fully understand interrogation operations, and I fully understand HUMINT. But the ways in which we are operating GITMO are wrong, and our inability as a country, through these two compete branches of government, to work to find a solution of policy and practice, in killing us.

5. This administration is going to go down on the books as having failed with regards to Afghanistan and Iraq. At some point, someone is going to pull out a copy of the Cap Weinberger speech, or the 1986 once-Top-Secret National Security Decision Directive Number 238, and talk about the use of military forces and how we are now, again, in two open-ended wars in two different countries. Three, if you count Syria. FOUR! if you count Yemen. We have pushed and stretched our actual combat operations into so many nooks and crannies, with no clearly identified or quantifiable goals for any of them, there’s no hope for exit. While this may be cause for a joyous chorus from defense contractors and munitions manufacturers, it gives me no comfort. None. Because, again, while there may be fighting today and a need for fighting today, there need to be a plan for no-fighting tomorrow, or one day, and the roadmap for getting there.

6. The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Although, I am unclear which way this will be written. I expect it will be written as a major achievement, for having it passed, and for all that it brought with it. I am sure it will also be written about in a negative light, too – rising premiums, and the like. But for all of the negative, the ground truth is that it brought coverage to so many. And it brought coverage to so many with specific pre-existing conditions. While not perfect, it was something. I am least uncertain about this.

7. I am absolutely certain that history – and by this, I am non-US history – is going to condemn the US with regards to the genocide in Syria during these last 5 years. In almost six years now – starting in March 2011 – the US has done nothing productive to stop the slaughtering of civilians. The one instance in which the US declared a “red line” with regards to Syrian chemical weapons was only met by Syria saying, “Here, take them” and the regime handing over… something. The war, the slaughter, the whole sale killing has not stopped. The US, as a world leader, and the US as a self-proclaimed world leader, has not stepped in to stop this genocide, and has not led the world community to step in and stop this genocide. And this is utter and complete bullshit. If anyone wants to point to a simple point in time at which the US stopped being a world leader, they can point to 15 March 2011 and the start of this crisis and scream THERE! RIGHT THERE! because it was with this abdication of leadership, and this unwillingness to step in and act to save any of the estimated 400,000 people killed, that the US stopped being the leader that this world needs. And that, that very clearly happened on the Obama watch.

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